Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Role of Art

In his book The View from the Studio Door, Ted Orland goes on at length about the function of Art in society. In particular, this passage caught my attention:

Most historical artwork played a role in society or religion or both. There's pretty good evidence that Bach himself understood that to make work that mattered meant addressing art at every level - from the purely technical to the completely profound - simultaneously. He once composed a set of training pieces whose purpose, he said, was "to glorify God, to edify my neighbor, and to develop a cantabile style of playing in both hands."

Some version of Bach's three tiered work order might be a worthwhile guide for artists working today. Today most artwork is not part of something larger than itself. It certainly isn't within the art world, where the embattled but still dominant postmodernist view holds that artists are not even the authors of their own work - that there is no such thing as an 'original' piece of art, but rather that we make art by taking things out of their original context (i.e. deconstruct them) and reassemble them in a new context. The idea that the subject of art is art may be a stimulating intellectual proposition within the art world, but it goes a long way toward explaining why most non-artists find zero connection between their own life and that same art. How deeply can art matter if the only fitting description of its meaning and purpose is "art for art's sake"?

I'm highly sympathetic to Orland's view of things. What do you think?


Blogger gdanmitchell said...

Well, maybe.

You can argue that Western art historically had a connection to religion or society (though I'm not quite sure what the latter actually means). For example, in the musical Baroque era many composers work for the royalty or for the church. However, it isn't quite this simple.

First off, "historical" Western musical art (which I'll stick to here, since it is what I know best) was produced in a time when there really were no other options for musical artists (with a few exceptions) but to work for the court (society?) or the church. If one didn't do that, one did not eat - at least not on the basis of one's music.

We don't live in that system any more. We haven't for some time. It was pretty much on its way out two centuries ago.

The church and the court are not the only sources of employment for musicians, nor do the jobs of those working in non-musical careers preclude the possibility that they might be able to make music... just because they love to do so

It is also important to note that this particular concept of Art is not universal. In fact, music is not necessarily regarded as a "serious" art in every culture.

Along similar lines the beginning with a statement about what might have been "historically" true does not mean as much as a casual reader might think. I'm sure there was a time long before Bach during which music had a very different function than it had during Bach's time - and I don't think we would argue against Bach's approach to music-making on the basis that an earlier historical period had not done it the way he did. Nor is it much of an argument against current practice to point out that in the past things were different.


(Who loves Bach and other "old" composers, is somewhat sympathetic to this argument, but is not so comfortable with a dismissal of the new just because it is different from the old.)

7:24 PM  
Blogger gravitas et nugalis said...

The idea that notion of "the subject of art is art" is even partly responsible for the fact that most non-artists find zero connection between their own life and that same art, IMO, completely misses the mark that most (not all) non-artists view art as a form of "entertainment" - a pleasant distraction from the every-day world of toil and strife. The last thing they want in their art is to be intellectually engaged.

Given the choice (and for all practical purposes, they have been given the choice) most would gladly choose a Zane Grey western over Cervantes' Don Quioxote any day of the week and twice on Sundays.

In the book Einstein's Space & Van Gogh's Sky - Physical Reality and Beyond the authors state, "The author of the first attempts to to lower our awareness of the world while we are reading; the author of the second to heighten and deepen our knowledge of what to means to be human."

Some might read this as a cynical put-down of so-called "decorative" art. It's not meant to be. We all need a little diversion now and then, but...

that said, the unfortunate thing is when a cultural gives itself over almost completely to the "decorative" side of life.

11:56 AM  

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